Michael Barter, chief executive of Blake Envelopes, talks about Enveloping Solutions rather than stock, coloured and bespoke envelopes, the stock in trade products of the envelope supplier. For him an envelope is anything that is a carrier for something else, a pouch that literally envelops something. To press the point, the dictionary definition of envelop is printed on the wall of Made By Blake, the envelope converting operation that Blake started this year.
“We have stretched the definition of envelope,” he says. According to the dictionary this is: “a flat, usually square or rectangular, paper container for a letter”. For Blake, the envelope is the protective sleeve for all manner of objects – even the wrapper that holds a pair of chopsticks together in a Chinese restaurant.
More importantly the stretched definition of what an envelope is covers e-commerce and the possibilities that having a paper carrier that both protects the goods and can slip through a standard letterbox will open up.
At the moment, he explains, just 6% of what is bought online is delivered to the consumer’s doormat, “where the figures say that it could be 30% sold online coming through the letterbox. We have to have a product that can go though a letterbox that is not an over packed corrugated box. And one that is 100% recyclable because it is not made from plastic.”
The sustainability message is core to the Yeovil business, from the energy efficient building to the products it deals in and to the production of envelopes in the latest venture.
“We are going to be plastic free by 2020,” says David Burn, production director at Made By Blake. He has made a strong start. Blake bought the building at the start of this year, revamping it to accept the Winkler & Dunnebier envelope machines that were acquired from an envelope producer in Scandinavia undergoing a restructure.
Burn is already testing a seaweed derived pallet wrap, has replaced plastic tape with a paper tape and is looking forwards to replacing fluorescent tubes with smart LED lighting that only comes on when natural lighting falls below a certain level.
As the freshly kitted out building is painted with bright white walls, (with the exception of that in the foyer covered in live moss) with a light flooring and plenty of windows, this is not expected to happen often.
The main Blake office a few hundred metres away is already equipped with LED lights, halving the amount spent on electricity. It was built six years ago to house the expanding business at a time when the real change in corporate outlook started to kick in.
Until then Blake, which Barter had started as a bedroom brokerage, had been a more traditional envelope supplier, buying, breaking and selling on. It was supplying the major paper merchants, major stationery providers, geared towards volumes and keen pricing, and subject to intense competition.
Barter saw an opportunity in having greater influence on who uses envelopes, he says. That means reaching everyone who buys or touches an envelope, from the individual purchasing a pack of envelopes to post letters or small items, through to the designers, stationery suppliers, litho printers, print management companies, mailing houses and the major paper merchants and supplies businesses.
He likens it to the days when Croxley Script was the writing paper brand that everyone knew. Blake should be the same household name for envelopes.
It is a different approach, one that is underlined by the operations in and around Yeovil. Visitors entering through the vast glass frontage tap an iPad to sign in. Behind this desk is a wall of colourful envelopes. In the seating area another interactive screen lets the visitor delve into Blake’s business.
Behind reception is the samples area where sets of products are collected and sent out to customers to check that the envelope will run on inserting lines, or that the colour, size and strength are as expected. This also fulfils requests from the merchants Blake supplies under white label conditions. There are meeting rooms and staff area on the remainder of the ground floor. Upstairs on what is in effect a vast mezzanine, the different administrative functions sit at open plan pods with the directors in glass fronted offices visible to staff at all times.
The challenge is about establishing Blake in these new areas, appealing to printers and designers creating marketing campaigns to reach them without losing the high volume business. It means a different approach to separate sectors so that each participant can retain a margin.
“We respect the players in the supply chain. What has changed is that the internet has made it all visible,” says Barter. “And we have to ensure we leave a margin for each tier of the supply chain. That makes us a little different. While we still want to make sure that the product received by the end user is from Blake.”
In the UK these are supplied from a 4,500 pallet position warehouse in Yeovil able to offer next day delivery, supported by a further warehouse a few miles away as back up. The latest warehouse software ensures pick accuracy reaching 99.85%. There is another warehouse in Germany to support customers on the European mainland.
Ideally customers would visit the head office, but Yeovil is not centrally placed. “Getting people down here is difficult as it’s not easy to get to. Instead we have hired the best, most knowledgeable people in the industry and have been opening Hubs of Excellence close to where they live,” Barter says.
The first opened in Edinburgh in 2016, followed by Leeds, Manchester, London, Birmingham and Bristol this year. More hubs will follow. There is now an office and warehouse in Düsseldorf to service customers on the content pre-empting any consequence of Brexit. And there is a warehouse and operation in the US which is very much in its infancy.
The logical step from the hub strategy has been to extend the service into a trade service for these customers. Again, the company chose the best to run it, appointing Burn who has 30 years’ experience in the sector. In February there were four staff running a small digital print service from the warehouse.
Now the head count is up to 19, the employees coming from the local area, most with no prior print industry experience.
But Blake rarely does the expected thing. And Burn clearly relishes the challenge of bringing in people with the right attitude and training them to run the 30 machines in the factory. More will follow.
“We have a clear vision of where we are going,” says Barter. It has the resources. There is a fixation on liquidity and there are no borrowings, every part of Blake’s rapid expansion has been self financed. “That means that we can do stuff when we need to. It gives that agility to move in line with fast moving trends,” he says.
He is optimistic, however, that the envelope and its close cousins have a strong future, even, or especially, in the face of digital competition.
“We are about creating curiosity in mailings and where that is the case we can guarantee that the envelope will be opened. It’s about going back to the basics for marketing, of getting something into someone’s hand. And an envelope is the ideal way to achieve that.”
Somerset is in one of the greenest parts of the country and Blake lives that, coupling its sustainability drive with charitable giving that is firmly embedded into the company culture.
It has a catalogue of paper only products grouped under the Vita brand and is growing these to remove the need to use single use plastic in anything sent by post. Expandable kraft paper envelopes will not only match the capacity of plastic delivery bags, but also provide a better customer experience when received.
For many brands selling online, their customer touch points are the website and then the package that protects the goods to the point of delivery. And for many consumers, plastic is a big concern.
There is also a paper based alternative to the document enclosed wallet stuck firmly to a box to carry the delivery note when a courier turns up.
Internally there is a cross business sustainability transformation team that looks at and generates ideas on how the business can be more sustainable and a better citizen.
For example, next year staff will be able to work for two days for a charity of their choice without loss of pay.
The ethos has resulted in regular fund raising for local hospice and hospital charities and more recently into support for School in a Bag initiative.
This is a locally based charity that supplies back packs containing everything a child needs for a year in school, from the pencils and exercise books to plates and cups which means that in Africa or elsewhere the child can get a midday meal at school.
Innovation and CSR director Tim Browning says: “For us it’s a perfect fit. Education is necessary for literacy and for social mobility and literacy drives demand for print.
“Every bag is numbered so can be tracked to a named child in a Romanian orphanage, village in Tanzania or Nepal, or to the The Gambia where we have 600 bags ready to go. We have supplied more than 1,000 bags so far.”
Blake Envelopes is based in an energy efficient building in Yeovil but has also invested in Hubs of Excellence around the country to be closer their customers.
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